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Philomena author reveals abuse of Irish children ‘sold’ to America

Irish children born out of wedlock in the 1950s and 60s were often sold to American couples by the Catholic Church, according to a television documentary by the author of the Philomena story.

In the BBC programme, Martin Sixsmith says that the system was a ‘lottery’ for the children as the Church did little to ensure the adoptive parents would be suitable.

Sixsmith is the author of the book Philomena, which was made into an Oscar nominated film starring Dame Judy Dench and Steve Coogan.

Cathy Deasy was sold to American parents - photo copyright BBC
Cathy Deasy was sold to American parents – photo copyright BBC

Philomena tells the story of an Irish woman who wants to track down her son decades after she was forced to give him away by the church.

Sixsmith’s new documentary, Ireland’s Lost Babies, continues to look into the subject. He speaks to several people who were adopted by American parents.

Many suffered abuse in their new families as the Catholic Welfare Bureau in the US failed to perform adequate checks on potential adoptive parents.

Sixsmith says: “The more you talk to the children who were sent out to America — and there were hundreds of them — the more you realise what a lottery the whole system was.

Some of the children had happy lives with the families they were sent to but many of them didn’t. Some of them were physically and sexually abused.”

One of those children was Mary Monaghan, who is now 63 years old.

She was adopted by Mr and Mrs O’Brien. Documents showed that the Catholic Welfare Bureau only interviewed Mrs O’Brien.

While Mrs O’Brien turned out to be a good parent, Mary was abused by Mr O’Brien.

She said: “I would be ill and I had all kinds of allergies and would break out because I was allergic to food.

“My memories are terrible. I was physically punished for not being able to eat and if I did anything like wet the bed, like a little child does, I would be put in the toilet.

The sexual abuse began very soon after that and it progressed.”

Many of the children were chosen from pictures sent to potential parents by nuns. They were often sent to America without meeting their new parents before leaving Ireland.

Four-year-old Cathy Deasy - photo copyright BBC
Four-year-old Cathy Deasy – photo copyright BBC

Cathy Deasy was another child who was adopted in this system. She remembers being photographed playing with toys so that the picture could be shown to American adopters.

She told Sixsmith: “They are what I call ‘prop shots’. The nuns took them to impress adopters. They dressed us up in nice clothes, made us pose with toys that we would never be allowed to play with, and told us to wave to the camera.”

She agreed that Sixsmith when he says: “You were literally a mail-order child. You were bought from a catalogue.”

She said: “My new parents did it all by mail. They never came to Ireland. They just told the nuns that they wanted a girl aged four or five, to be a companion for their own daughter. They sent a shopping list of what they wanted.”

She said that she had a good life in New York until her parent’s biological daughter left home and went to college.

She said: “[My sister] decided to move to California and my parents went through an empty nest syndrome and missed her so much. My father said: ‘By the way we had a college fund for you but we spent it and we intend to continue spending it and we are going on a cruise and we want you out of the house by 18.’ ”

They later sold their New York house and moved to California, eventually cutting ties with her. She said: “It was horrible to say goodbye because they were the ones who said hello to me when I got off the plane from Ireland. Even though I was supposed to be older I guess and get over it, it hurt and still hurts.”

Cathy Deasy speaking to Martin Sixsmith - photo copyright BBC
Cathy Deasy speaking to Martin Sixsmith – photo copyright BBC

Cathy wrote to the nuns at the convent to try to track down her mother. She received a letter saying that her mother was probably dead. However, she continued searching and managed to track her down.

She told Sixsmith that she flew to Ireland to meet her. She said: “It was the happiest moment in my life. There she was, this little old lady who was my mother. She was smiling and you could see the joy in her eyes.

“I said to her, ‘I’m your daughter. I still have the same red hair’. My mother said it broke her heart that I was taken from her.

“Those were hard words to speak, but they gave me all the answers – I was never unwanted, I was never abandoned. My mother didn’t give me away.”

Thousands more children were taken against the will of their mothers during this period. The Irish government is finally considering opening up the records to help mothers and children find each other.

Ireland’s Lost Babies Documentary

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  1. This kind of thing happened in Britain too. I was adopted from an Irish Catholic family in England in 1953. I later learned I was paid for by my adoptive parents and most of the work was done by the Catholic Church. I was abused in several ways by my adoptive parents. I did finally trace my biological family but that didn’t work out as I think they were afraid. My heart goes out to all those treated in this way, good to bring it to attetion

  2. Nancy Nighbor. (Michael)

    My husband was born in Limerick on March 20,1952. Came to America when he was 2 1/2. Settled in Sheboygan WI. Mother’s last name was Sheehy.

  3. Yes but in the U.S. “Lutheran Church” Child Services, Did much the Same to Children! Maggie Wilkinson IS right what she said!!! It wasn’t just Catholic doing Child Taking or Coercing, Scaring Mothers….it Was Worldwide! Canada….Duplesses Orphans read about. 1920’s OrphanTrains, U.S. read about.

  4. I was born 1948 St
    Patrick’s. Adopted to America greatest adopted Parents. The pice of the puzzle always missing🧩 Ledwith birth name🙏🏻☘️

  5. I was born in St Patrick’s 1948. Sent to America &
    had wonderful adopted Parents. You still think about missing piece of the puzzle 🧩 My original name Ledwith ☘️

  6. I was born in 1962 and adopted. Years later I found a letter in my grandmothers bible from her friend (a nun) congratulating my grandmother, father and mother for adopting out of an orphanage in Ireland! Could I be one of these children????

  7. I have a friend who was adopted from Germany. Her parents couldn’t speak German and she spoke no English. Her adoptive mother was abusive and after she was finally able to give birth she became neglectful.

    I think that the worst thing is that children adopted from overseas don’t get citizenship and can be deported.

  8. yes I was one of those adopted in 1959 thru Catholic Charities I was born in Limerick Ireland and I beieive was in orphanage in Croome by sisters of mercy flew out of shannon airport in 1959 all the way to America/ and yes my parents picked me out from pictures sent to them / i was told grandparents signed me away

  9. Robin McElroy Maloney

    Yeah, they will open then now, that many have passed never knowing.

  10. I would love to share my story with Martin, I was born in Sean Ross Abbey and the nun Sister Hilagarde portrayed in movie Philomena took me away from my mom middle of night and sent me to her neice in Chicago. My birth mom never signed any papers and I went to a mom with skitsophrenia and abusive physically and mentally.

  11. Alan Lawrence – I suggest a few things to you : adopted.com is one. And I suggest you do a DNA test with ancestry.com, which can then be put on gedmatch.com. You can track the family that way hopefully and learn enough information to find your brother.
    I helped a friend find his birth family and we found them right away.
    I wish you success.

  12. The things that are coming out of the woodwork is so shameful.Those poor mums and babies .The church has a lot to answer for.Who got the money for the sale of the babies or need I ask….

  13. My Mother came out from Ireland to Australia and had an estranged kind of relationship with family in Ireland. I have asked about whether she had a child out of wedlock and no one will tell me. It is like the families dirty little secret. I have found out that i have a brother that is 10 years older than me but cannot find out any information from any of the agencies. Can anyone give me any advice as to how to go about a search. I feel that time is running out.

  14. I was born in Sean Ross Abbey and was sent to Sister Hildagardes neice in Chicago who was portrayed in Philomena. Adopted mom was unmedicated skitsophrenic and abusive. I am looking to have my story written.

  15. My Mother was born in Offaly. Her Mother was not married. My mother was taken from her Mother and adopted by a sea captain and his wife in Dublin. She was forced to give her baby up by the magdaline sisters. My mother never knew who her real family was. The couple who adopted her were a Belgian sea captain and his irish wife and they lived in Sandymount in Dublin. He abused my mother for years.

  16. Babies are a gift from God. No ‘man’ has a right to take a Mother’s baby away. This separation is horrendous and shameful. I wish these families peace. Irish women and children were sold into slavery. As in kidnapped… Irish people are strong. They overcome adversity. Survivors. I wish all my ancestors and families peace and strength.

  17. Mary Theresa Gillespie Smith

    We can’t even start to feel what these poor girls must have gone through, we all know once we have our babies just how precious they are and the love we feel, God Bless them all, I’m a Catholic and find it so hard to understand.

  18. Barbara Ann Harris

    My brother was born in Ireland in 1963 and came on a Pan Am flight from Ireland where we saw him for the first time. He was 23 months old. I was almost 10. My family was so happy to get him and he was loved very much. I am sorry for all of the unfortunate cases but he wasn’t one of them. I went to Ireland about 10 years ago when he located his birth mother. She was so happy to see him. His siblings were very angry about the lies they were told…I can’t blame them. The Catholic church really mishandled these poor families. Very sad for so many!

  19. This happened to me in 1976 in the US. It was all too common here! I was sent to a Maternity Home run by the Catholic Church in Los Angeles. I was medically abused by a Doctor I now assume Catholic Health Charities sent in place of my personal Doctor. They kidnapped my Newborn. Let me hold her once for 5 minutes. It was a horrendous experience!

  20. What a sad story of all these poor women and their children who were taken away from their mothers. My mother was Irish and an unmarried mother .too
    That was 1946 but she lived in England at that time , which was just as well , as I hate to think if she lived at home in Eire where I might be now if she was told to leave home by her parents , She brought me up herself alone , but she would never have given me up for adoption.I also was an unmarried mother , in 1964 and as one can imagine my mother didnt want any of the family in Eire to know ( the scandel of it !!!!! ) so I went to have my baby in unmarried mothers “home ” run by catholic nuns , but lucky for all of us unmarried girls ( I was 17 yr ) the nuns were very nice to us and we wernt treated like scumm. And I kept my baby boy , who will be 52 yrs tomorrow I saw the movie of Philomena a very moving story

  21. This is so sad, thank you for all your hard work. I am so sorry as a American that this has happened to these children.

  22. Baby scoops happened world wide during this time, My experience in a Anglican Home for unwed Mothers was of bitter punishment ending with baby being taken and given to strangers (it was a time of abuse,cruelty loss and everlasting grief). Judgmental controlling people worked within the churches and government which allowed them to play god with our children. The Mothers were released back into society without any help or support, we were then forgotten and now ignored. This was New Zealand, Australia, UK and it still happens (ie. America) and anywhere there are vulnerable women and a consumer possessed market.

  23. I am so glad to hear of these matters coming to light and having someone help these families reunite! Slainte!

  24. Philomena O 'Regan nee Devereux

    Philomena is such a inspiration to every person who found themselves in that situation ???

  25. Thank you fr all your work on this subject.
    My fiance nieces he is one of these children. Born in Cork. Brought to eris st ye age of 3 and adopted by a file on New York.
    He suffered a terrible childhood, which has scared him for life. He says he is 57 years old and has never known peace until he met me.
    His story is a real nightmare.
    This subject needs to be brought to light and these “children deserve peace.
    Again thank you

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